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Narrativism, player authoring and hooror story

Started by Fabrice G., February 07, 2002, 09:31:30 PM

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Fabrice G.

Hi, i plan to do an horror rpg and i have this question: can you have an horror story with a lot of player authoring power ?

In my experience, when i play horror it's about "feeling" the horror. But isn't that wholly simulationism ?

I'm wondering about the possibility of playing a narritivist horror story.

Psychological horror is about the disintegration of the self, but usually it's only atteined if the player himself feel it. Now, if the player is so distached from the experience of his character feeling as to make obviously OOC decision won't it affect the horror's effectiveness ?

I am about to run a game in two weeks, and i really want to do two things:
- have a narrativist-heavy-player-power game
- run a horror game

My fear is that the players will be creating a horror story, but that no one will experience it, thus IMO lessening the interest of playing one.

I would like to know if any of you allready managed to play such a game, how did you deal with the player's power ? and how did the game run ?



Trust me, if as a player, I had authoritive power, I'd scare the crap out of everyone else...  Remember, everyone consents in a horror game that their character's are up for grabs, and the only place of the characters is to be as witnesses/victims to the terror to come, how much more fun it is when the players actually have control(which the characters do not) and excersize it to make the situation steadily worse in new and surprising ways.  Most of the horror comes from not knowing what's going on, losing your paradigm of reality, and then the helplessness of knowing what IS going on.


J B Bell

I think I can speak to this, at least somewhat.

Years ago, I was running a FUDGE campaign with my own magic system.  In this system, as in games like Mage, magic was very freeform and essentially allowed a player a fair amount of authorial power.  (To throw some more lingo, it was more an Illusionist setup than Narrativist.  I wanted the latter, but the former was what we knew we could get.  It was fragile, but it did work much of the time.)

I think a crucial thing to do is to be allowed to twist the players' intent.  Perhaps the most genuinely scary scene in the whole game was when Michael, a magician of words (that is, he practiced "verbomancy"--he would write stories, and they would, if he were successful, come true).  He was seeking after his daughter in The Flesh, a sort of elemental plane of all things meat, sinew, and bone.  The environment I designed went a ways towards determining how magic worked while they were there--in The Flesh, spirit cannot exist--all special effects were constrained to working with literally fleshly things.  So, while Michael quested after his daughter, he did some minor magic by creating a compass from a twist of her hair, and a little chicken bone (or something).

When he didn't find her in time, and he botched a spell-casting role, I ruled that his desire--to be re-united with his daughter--messed up the clarity of his intent.  So, rather than meeting his daughter properly, several copies of her extruded messily from the (made of flesh, remember) walls and floor, then flopped down lifeless.

This relied a lot on gore, of course, but it quite got to people, including me.  (Good tip in GMing horror--it's a good idea when it hits you like a brick and you think, "oh, no, I couldn't do that".)

Analyzing this scene, I was using a sort of fate-in-the-middle.  I would say that for Narrativist horror, it would be good to use that technique, and include in your rules or social contract that there are conditions where the authorial power of the players can be warped.  A lot of character-driven horror with protagnists in movies in books happens when they ask for something and get something that follows the letter but perverts the spirit.  Whether you're using magic or some other tool to render authorial power, this can be a good tool to use, I think.

"Have mechanics that focus on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." --Mike Holmes

Ron Edwards


I know that people often speak of "feeling" the horror, but as far as I can tell horror is a much more removed, much more self-referential experience than terror. Terror is when you, personally, are afraid of the pod-people coming after you. Horror is when you are reminded of the pod-people by the actual behaviors of real people that you know.

More of my thoughts on this can be found in my Little Fears review.




So, just to restate your question: Is Horror and Narrativism compatible?  ABSOLUTELY!  I run a Deadlands game that I used to run in heavy Simulationist manner.  The games were structured similar to a standard Chaosium Call of Cthulhu scenario.  They were just Western in feel and not so heavy on the cosmic forces stuff.  Then I started getting interested in Narrativism and began to switch my style.  And let me tell you the games got MORE scary, not less.  Let me see if I can explain why.

First of all one of the keys to Narrativism is the focus on real human issues be they concrete, Mother-Daughter Relationships, or more abstract, Honor.  So, I started putting a lot more work into my NPCs and their personal passions and relationships.  The actual appearance of supernatural elements got turned WAY WAY down.  I don't think my players have seen a zombie, vampire or any other monster for almost 3 sessions now.  BUT, they do know there are unseen forces out there because they see their impacts on the ordinary human issues that arrise between the characters.

The over all effect is an acute sense of paranoia because no body knows what the hell is going on because they can't see it and they can't find it and yet it's all around them as evidenced by the the effects on the characters.

So where does player authoring come into this?

First of all player authoring does not mean the players are in the know about everything.  The players know zip about my backstory, or the events that I have planned or what's causing all the weirdness.  What player authoring means is that they take what elements they do know about and conciously act on those elements to express their character as a protagonist.  That was a very sloppy sentence and Ron's probably going to nail me on a technicality but it gets the idea across.

Here's an example from my game.  One of the characters is named Rhette and she's an ex-whore-house-madam who came west looking for a new start.  Up until very recently she's been very promiscuous and would pretty much sleep with anything that was human and male.  Recently she started receiving nightly vistations from a mysterious gentleman caller who seems to have no problem getting in and out of her bedroom.  This mysterious man while being friendly and courtly to Rhete has been taking her on these nightly walks and showing her scenes of horrible human injustice.  His name is Lucidis Jetsbin.

As the relationship between Rhette and Lucidis has developed Rhette has been taking more and more of an author stance with respect to Rhette.  She's realized that Rhette is very very torn between Lucidis's treatment of her (something Rhette is not used to) and the horrible things he keeps showing her.  It's hard to capture in words Rhette's players mental process but she is definitely thinking in terms of the bigger emotional drama and not just about what Rhette as the character was originally concieved would do.

One evidence for this is she, the player, has out and out told me, that Rhette has been pushing Lucidis away as of late but could I not have him get chased away completely because she likes the developing relationship between them.

The scenes between Rhette and Lucidis are some of the most emotionally intense and frighting things going on in the game.  Rhette's player is freaked out as she is drawn into Rhette's dilema and, here's the real shocker, *I* as the GM am freaked out as I come more and more to understand Lucidis's motivations and his development in reaction to Rhette's moral confusion.  Our last session ended with a scene between Rhette and Lucidis in which Rhette confronted him about the sick gothic romance ride he's been taking her on and by the end I was quite litterally shaking.  I maintain that neither I, nor Rhette's player broke Author Stance once during that scene.

Horror is all about some realization concerning real human things that is difficult for us to cope with.  It's about recognizing a situation we would not be comfortable with ourselves.  The supernatural elements are there only to highlight and accentuate something that would already be pretty unnerving in real life.  Everyone at the table is horrified at the situation Rhette is in.  We all feel Rhette's confusion at her simultaneous attraction and revultion to this gentleman caller.  

Also don't forget about the GM's role.  For example, one of the key techniques of horror is Reversal.  Several times the players have taken actions that they felt were heroic and just and come the next session I've planned in elements demonstrating horrible outcomes and aftermaths.  Two sessions ago the players decided to rescue a cultist from the gallows by convincing the local Reverand's Daughter (who had been having a secret love affair with the cultist) to confess to their relationship and testify as a character witness on his repentful nature.  It worked.  The cultist was freed.  Yeah, heroes save the day, right?  Wrong.

I started the next session by having good old Lucidis take Rhette on one of their nightly walks.  He showed her the man who was betrothed to the Reverand's Daughter by parental arrangement commiting suicide over his public humliation.  He also showed Rhette the Reverend locking his daughter up in her room and calling her a 'whore of the devil.'  These were things that I as the GM had decided was going were going to happen.  It was pretty effective too.

Well, this has gotten a bit rambly but to sum up, no I don't think Horror and Narrativism are incompatible.  Not at all.



Horror is best done narrativist style, I guarantee it.

When I first started hanging out here at The Forge, there was alot of discussion about how things like Authorial and Directorial stance often veered towards silliness, but I didn't see it.  The first thing that occurred to me was "horror".

Like Ron said, horror is self-referential.  We own our fear, and it's a very personal thing.  An author or filmmaker, or game master, can try all they want - riff on all the cliches, play on all the genre conventions - but if they never connect with us on a personal level, it's not going to be horrifying.  You'll put the book down, or leave the movie theatre, or get up from the gaming table, and maybe you think "Yeah that was interesting", but if it didn't mean anything to you, then it didn't mean anything to you.

So what better way to own your fear - to have it mean something - than to have authorial power over it?  

A suggestion - do a group character creation session.  Do it roundtable style, and let the players help each other out, contributing to each player's creative process.  Authorial/Directorial power works because you have an emotional investment in the creation, so give the players a reason to be interested in each individual character.  Then, while you're playing, watch as the players scare the crap out of each other.  Take my Sorcerer game last summer; although not explicitly a horror scenrio, there wasn't a single one of us that didn't need a shower after watching Eloran go to town.

Oh, and a small plug - Check out Man's Worst Friend at my's a deliberate attempt on my part to create a strongly narrativist horror game.

Take care,


Darn it Moose, why aren't you pimping Human Wreckage as well. Very good game, I've played it twice. A very good example of narrativist horror.
-Jeremiah J. Davis
"Girl you know I love you. now ya gotta die." ICP



Nice of you to say so.  Outside of the session Ron played and the couple I've set-up, I didn't think anyone had tried that game.  Gosh, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

To be honest, I became frustrated with the extensive resource management the game required, and have been hoping to revamp the rules in a big way.  I'd be interested in knowing how it worked for you - what problems did you have, and what things did you like?  If you got the time and what to discuss it, drop me a private message.

Take care,


Quote from: hardcoremoose
So what better way to own your fear - to have it mean something - than to have authorial power over it?  

Umm, no.  If you own your fear, you become responsible for it.  Surely horror requires that the situation be something the person is NOT in control of, something external and alien to them (at least consciously).  Furthermore, I suggest that horror audiences do NOT in fact want to get in tune with their own fears - they want to see someone else experience those fears at a safe distance.  The PC provides this vehicle for the player, and I don;t think fears should emanate from the players so much as the characters.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


I think that the exciting thing about Narrativist (or otherwise player-authored) horror is:

Instead of one scarer and a group of scarees, you get a group of co-scarers and co-scarees.

I used to sit up late and wrack my sad brain to come up with things I thought would scare my players, and of course they sabotaged them and giggled.

If they share responsibility for the horror in the game, I don't think that they'll scare them own individual selves too much, but I think that they'll a. act scared themselves, which will help to b. scare each other, and c. make them more receptive to being actually scared themselves.  I think b. may be the most important part.  Being surrounded by people acting scared is scary by itself.

Not that I have even a half-hour of actual play evidence.  Just opinions.


Paul Czege

Hey Gareth,

I think I agree with Moose and Vincent on this. My experiences with traditional horror RPG's have never really scared me the way horror fiction and movies sometimes do. And for a long time I figured it was just the GM having lesser horror skills than directors and published authors. I don't think that anymore. For me, a lot of the emotional intensity of a horror novel or movie comes from relating to the protagonist's reaction to the situation. And in an RPG, that aspect of the story isn't delivered to me. I have to create it. Narrativist horror succeeds because authorial power allows each player to expose his own personal fears in the game. It creates a synergy among participants, almost an emotional communication of synchronous feelings of vulnerability, of hopes and fears. That's what horror is to me.

My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans